Everyone knows arsenic is a poison--it is how countless villains have knocked off their victims in countless murder mysteries. However, it takes a lot of arsenic--relatively speaking, at least a teaspoon or two--to do someone in on the spot.
Much lower levels of arsenic, though, can cause health damage over long periods of time. Both animal and human studies have shown that what seem like tiny amounts of arsenic--exposures in the parts per billion range--can result in cancer years later. Just how carcinogenic arsenic may be is only now just coming to light. Arsenic is already considered to be one of the most potent carcinogens in our environment, but a new analysis still working its way through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that it may be even more potent than previously thought.
Given these new concerns, Consumer Reports decided to test rice and rice products (everything from Rice Krispies to rice milk) for arsenic. Why rice? Prior research has shown that rice generally contains more arsenic than other grains, probably because rice is grown in water-flooded conditions and absorbs arsenic from the soil and water. And arsenic is present on a lot of soil. Residues from decades of lead-arsenate insecticide use linger, even though their use was banned in the 1980s. Arsenic-containing drugs are also permitted for use on food animals to prevent disease and promote growth. As a result, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contain arsenic.
The news about rice products is not good. Consumer Reports indicated today that it found arsenic in virtually all of the more than 60 different rice products it tested, and recommends that people limit rice and rice product consumption in various ways. Consumer Reports suggests that infants be given a serving of rice cereal no more than once a day, and that children under five not consume rice milk (rice drinks) on a regular basis. Kids should eat no more than one and a half cups of ready-to-eat rice cereal, like Rice Checks or Rice Krispies in a week. Adults should limit themselves to two standard servings of rice per week. And once you have your quota of one product, that's it for all rice products for the week.
Are some rice products better than others? Maybe. Consumer Reports test represent a snapshot of the market from which they cannot draw any conclusions about any particular brands, but they did observe some trends. White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas generally had higher levels of total and inorganic arsenic (the most worrisome kind) than rice samples from elsewhere (India, Thailand and California as a group).
In addition, within any given brand, brown rice had more arsenic than white, although some individual brown rice samples were lower in arsenic compared to some white rice samples, possibly due to agricultural practices or where they were grown. Regardless of rice type and origin, Consumer Reports suggests adults adhere to the two-servings-a-week consumption limit. You can find suggested limits for consumption of all the rice products tested at consumerreports.org.
Is there anything else the individual consumer can do? Consumer Reports suggests that you cook rice the Asian way--rinse first and then cook with six cups of water to one cup of rice--and pour the excess water off at the end. Research suggests that this can remove some 30 percent of inorganic arsenic. In addition, kids under 6 shouldn't drink more than 4 to 6 ounces of apple or grape juice a day. Consumer Reports tests published this past January showed that they can contain elevated arsenic as well.
Also, if your home is not on a public water system, you should get your water tested for both arsenic and lead, as this can add to your total exposure. The local health department can generally recommend a certified lab.
For the longer term, however, the FDA and EPA should act to end the introduction of more arsenic into our food and our environment. It is urgent that FDA set standards for maximum levels of arsenic in various foods. We suggest a limit of 120 parts per billion in rice, and a level of just 3 parts per billion in apple and grape juice. (By way of reference, the New Jersey standard for arsenic in water is 5 parts per billion.)
Then FDA and EPA should address the sources of arsenic in food. Arsenic-containing herbicides can still be used on cotton; EPA should phase out this use since the arsenic can get into water and soil. Arsenic-containing drugs can be given to healthy chickens, turkeys, and pigs to promote growth and prevent diseases--FDA should prohibit this practice. And because of this drug use, relatively high levels of arsenic may end up in poultry manure, which can be used on rice fields as fertilizer, contaminating the crop. Until FDA prohibits feeding arsenic-containing drugs to chickens, rice farmers should not use poultry manure on fields.
Arsenic is a serious health concern. Given what we learning about arsenic's role in contributing to cancer and other serious health problems, the government needs to regulate it in food. This includes setting standards and banning the practices that persistently deliver arsenic into our food and water supply.